A shift away from neighborhood schools in some parts of Denver is highlighting the fact that in families’ eyes, not all schools are created equal.
Data from this year’s first round of school choice applications show that in five of Denver Public Schools’ seven “shared enrollment zones,” one school is significantly more popular than others. In one case, one school received more than three times as many applications than the other four in the zone.
In zones where one school is overwhelmingly popular, students were least likely to get into their first choice school.
DPS created enrollment zones to promote diversity and open access to higher performing schools to more families. Families who live in a shared enrollment zone are guaranteed placement at one of several schools in their general geographic area, but aren’t assigned to any one school.
Three of the district’s zones are new this year: the West and Southwest Middle School Zones and the Southeast Elementary Zone. [Maps of the zones]
Families who live in a zone have an extra incentive to participate in the district’s SchoolChoice enrollment system. If they don’t, they have no way of knowing which school in their zone their children will attend. In parts of town without enrollment zones, students are assigned directly to a neighborhood school.
Close to 25,000 students across the district submitted SchoolChoice applications this year. More than 4,000 of those lived in shared enrollment zones.
Dominant schools and top-choice rates
Districtwide, 78 percent of students who applied got their first choice schools. In the enrollment zones, the rates varied: In the Far Northeast, just 69 percent of students will attend their first choice school, compared to 84 percent in the Southwest. Across the district, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five schools.
The smallest percentage of students got their first-choice school in zones where one school was overwhelmingly popular.
New zones and southwest Denver plans
Participation rates in SchoolChoice in southwest Denver increased dramatically this year, after an extensive “get out the application” effort. More than 90 percent of students in the two zones in southwest Denver submitted applications, compared to 67 percent last year.
The West zone includes Kepner Middle School, which is being phased out by the district as several new schools are being introduced. It looks like students are moving away from Kepner: Just 51 opted into the district-run school, while 76 opted into the Compass Academy Middle School, a new charter school opening later this year in the Kepner building. The most popular school in the West zone was STRIVE Prep at Westwood, also a charter.
In the Southwest zone, 134 students listed DSST: College View, a charter, as their top choice, while just 84 students opted into district-run Henry World Middle School. The district says that information drove a recent decision to bring a new program into Henry.
Park Hill Zone and McAuliffe
In the Park Hill / Stapleton Zone, McAuliffe International, a district innovation school, drew more than three times more applications than any other school. It was the most popular school in any zone.
That’s led to some contention. McAuliffe’s waiting list has been the topic of private Facebook comment threads reviewed by Chalkbeat in which parents vent about having to attend a school outside of their neighborhood.
McAuliffe has applied to the district o open a new school in 2016-17 in the near northeast part of the city, but if that school is approved, it would open too late to host this year’s disgruntled families.
DPS officials say that the fact that not everyone is getting their first choice doesn’t mean the system isn’t working.
“I understand people’s frustration,” said David Suppes, Denver Public Schools’ Chief Operating Officer. “But I don’t think it’s because we’re doing something different than we said we would. What we’re seeing is the incredible popularity of some schools.”
Charters dominate middle school
Across the middle school zones, charter schools were the first choice for many families.
The most popular options in West, Southwest, Lake, and Far Northeast middle school zones are all part of either the STRIVE or DSST charter networks.
In the Park Hill / Stapleton zone, the second most popular option after McAuliffe was DSST – Stapleton. Significant numbers of students in that zone also applied to attend DSST: Cole and DSST: Conservatory Green.
The trend favoring charters doesn’t carry over to elementary zones, where the most popular choices were district-run programs.
The long tail
In each of the zones, there is a long tail of schools listed as the top choice by just a handful of students. There are too many of these schools to include in these graphs. Among them are programs for students with special needs.
The district plans to release more information about this year’s first round of school choice later this spring.